To the Editor:
Jay P. Lefkowitz’s account of President Bush’s deliberations on his embryonic stem-cell-research policy is a valuable contribution to the historical record, but his wholesale charge that the scientific community was morally unserious in its deliberations is disappointing [“Stem Cells and the President,” January].
If Mr. Lefkowitz has not heard of the sensitivity of scientists to the moral questions raised by the creation and destruction of embryonic cells, it can only be because he has not listened. Contrary to what he suggests, the biologist James Thomson is on record paying heed to the ethical quandaries long before they were supposedly rendered moot by recent scientific discoveries. At least two federal commissions in the 1990’s examined the moral dilemmas in detail, hearing testimony from numerous theologians. In 2005, a committee I co-chaired for the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine issued a report with a whole chapter devoted to the moral status of the human embryo.
An irony of the President’s reasoning seems to have eluded Mr. Lefkowitz. He cites an observation of the bioethicist Leon Kass in a crucial White House meeting that if one funds research on stem cells that have already been extracted from embryos (as opposed to creating embryos in order to extract their cells), one is “not complicit in their destruction.” Had the President actually acted on this dictum, he would have preserved President Clinton’s policy, which approved funding for research on embryonic stem-cell lines but not for the derivation of such lines. Instead, President Bush established a policy that, as Mr. Lefkowitz notes, created an arbitrary moral boundary that satisfied neither side of the debate, and left his administration in a “defensive crouch.”
Mr. Lefkowitz suggests that the moral debate has been ended by the recent papers on induced pluripotency—i.e., a technique that allows, without the destruction of human embryos, the creation of stem cells that are identical to those taken from embryos. But if he had listened to the scientists who made the discovery, he would have learned that in order to make the technique safe and reliable, embryonic stem-cell lines will still be needed for many years.
Jonathan D. Moreno
Center for Bioethics, University of Pennsylvania
To the Editor:
It was refreshing to learn from Jay P. Lefkowitz that the President’s approach to embryonic stem cells was driven by genuine ethical concerns. This is not something that can be said of every participant in the debate. There were many in the pro-choice camp who were eager to use the stem-cell issue as a surrogate in the abortion wars. Until stem cells came on the scene, pro-lifers maintained an advantage in imagery: a mid- or late-term fetus looks very much like a newborn baby. The medical hopes for embryonic stem cells pitted the earliest embryos—microscopic blobs—against articulate, compelling spokesmen of human suffering like the actor Michael J. Fox.
Thus arose a partnership of politicians, eager to tap pro-choice votes, with leading scientists who touted the potential of stem cells to provide new therapies for a wide range of chronic conditions. But the credibility of the scientists’ promise may be questioned. For years, we have heard that identifying the mutations responsible for single-gene disorders like cystic fibrosis would lead to a cure; next, that sequencing the human genome would give us the “Book of Life”; then, that gene transfer, which was prematurely misnamed gene “therapy,” would cure nearly every disease; and now the wonders of stem cells.
In each case, huge amounts of money from government, industry, and private donors were expended, but they failed to generate cures. The public should know that the leading practical effect of finding the mutations responsible for single-gene disorders has been prenatal diagnosis and elective abortion—hardly what one could call therapy.
Kevin Jon Williams, M.D.
Jay P. Lefkowitz writes:
Jonathan D. Moreno takes umbrage at my remark that the scientific community was not sufficiently sympathetic to the moral problems associated with embryonic stem-cell research. To be sure, many individual scientists—James Thomson is definitely one—have long recognized the tension between the potentially beneficial ends of such research and the manipulation of human embryos that it requires.
But it can fairly be said that the dominant view in the scientific community has been sharply critical of President Bush for allowing “theological” concerns to impede scientific progress. In comments that were widely quoted in the press, the president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, a group representing more than 100 medical associations, colleges, scientific societies, and private foundations, stated that “the administration was ignoring science and attempting to silence scientists. . . . There is a moral imperative to help the sick, and the Bush policy flies in the face of that.”
Mr. Moreno misconstrues the meaning of Leon Kass’s distinction (which President Bush’s policy adopted) if he feels it should have led to the preservation of President Clinton’s standing policy. The entire basis of Bush’s decision was that he did not want taxpayer funds to serve as an inducement for anyone to destroy human embryos. Thus, only stem-cell lines that existed prior to the policy’s enactment could qualify for federal funding. Clinton’s policy allowed the government to look away as stem cells were extracted from embryos by private means; it could then step in to fund research on the newly “existing” lines.
There is certainly power to Kevin Jon Williams’s argument that some people have used the stem-cell issue as a proxy for the abortion debate, but that is a charge that can be leveled against the Right as well as the Left. In his criticism of the histrionics of some advocates of embryonic stem-cell research, Dr. Williams neglects to highlight what may be their most ambitious aim, which is to secure federal funding for what is euphemistically called “therapeutic cloning.” This refers to a process by which a skin cell from an adult is introduced into a de-nucleated egg in order to produce a cloned embryo whose DNA is identical to that of the donor. Such cloning, it is thought, could lead to the development of tissue and organs that would be available for transplantation in-to adults without risk of rejection. Of course, it also entails creating human life in a laboratory as a mere instrument—an ominous precedent indeed.